EXETER – Even when they were growing up on the streets of Exeter and Milligan, Darcy White, the current head coach of the Exeter-Milligan Timberwolves, saw the potential in the current senior class.
“I remember when the girls were very young, my daughter Claire (White), who was a year ahead of them, and I decided that we were going to get a team together,” said White, herself the 2012 Nebraska Coaches Association Volleyball Coach of the Year for 2012. “They started out very young, and they found out they were pretty good.”
Seniors Taylor Erdkamp, Megan Zwickl, Jackie Luzum, Jennifer Pribyl and Malinda Hall have put more state championship trophies in the trophy case at Exeter-Milligan than any other senior class ever. The Timberwolves won Class D-1 State titles in 2009, 2010 and 2012, and in 2011 they were runner-up to Humphrey.
The loss to the Bulldogs in 2011 was the key motivating piece for this year's championship run.
“We didn't feel like we lived up to what we should have and that we disappointed the community, not just ourselves,” explained Erdkamp, a 2012 first team All-State Class D-1 selection. “We set a point to get back to the top. Everyone that doubted us was just fuel. Anyone who said we couldn't do it, we just wanted to prove them wrong.”
“I know this is really cliché, but losing really made us a lot better,” Pribyl stated. “We knew what it felt like to lose and come out short.”
Success was not handed to this group of seniors and White said it was hard work and countless hours in the gym, getting them to where they are now.
“One of our mottos this year was No Excuses, No Regrets. I can't tell you how much time these girls have put in and I don't think they realize how much time they have put in. They just don't give themselves credit,” said White. “They played every sport and it does take a lot of work and they wouldn't be sitting here if they hadn't done that.”
This senior group all grew up together in the Exeter and Milligan communities. According to all of them they never got into much trouble growing up and they had a pretty general childhood. No one they could think of really stood out as the leader or the spokesperson of the group back in the early years.
“When we were little, I don't think we really knew who the lead person was cause we were still trying to figure everything out,” Erdkamp said. “As we got older, I think Zwickl (Megan) picked it up and she supported us. You definitely helped everybody out.”
Jackie Luzum weighed in on this part of the conversation as did coach White.
“ I think it probably was you two (pointing at Megan and Taylor). Just like Taylor said you both give (good) advice,” Luzum chimed in. “Megan played a lot of positions so she had advice for a lot of different things. Taylor is the setter so she kind of controls stuff.” This past season Jackie joined Taylor on the Class D-1 All-State first team.
“Those two girls are the two that are always talking while the ball is in play. They are not just calling the ball as theirs, but they are saying, Jen or Jackie go,” White added. They are always talking to everybody while the ball is in play and that is very important.”
The early years of club volleyball were tough, but those times and that experience taught these girls a lesson. “I think in club it was always in our off season and we always had other sports going on at the same time,” Luzum pointed out. “We definitely had a lot of rough moments at club and I think it kind of showed us like just how low we can go, but it also showed us how good we can play.”
“It was more relaxed, kind of like fun time,” said Zwickl.
“It showed us what not to do, it was better experience with different teams and we got to play different levels of play,” commented Pribyl.
What's ironic about this team of champions is they never dreamed of winning the state volleyball championships until much later, but played out their state championship fantasies watching the 2004 state D-1 champion Exeter-Milligan girls' basketball team.
“I think that when we were little and the girls won state basketball, we wanted to be there and I never thought we would be,” Zwickl said. “They (the players) seemed like superstars to us at that time as little kids.”
“I envisioned us more in elementary that we would win state basketball,” said Jennifer. “We were much more of a team in basketball than in volleyball and we didn't start club until about the seventh grade, so I didn't start thinking about state volleyball until that time. But I never thought we would have four state championship trophies in front of us.”
For Jackie it was a certain moment that showed her how important state volleyball was.
“I remember I was in the fifth grade and I remember going to a state volleyball game and Claire was the student manager. I went up to her after the game and I wasn't really phased that we lost the game,” explained Jackie. “She was so upset and I said what's wrong.
She said, well we just lost and then I started thinking how important state is, and then started thinking it would be cool to get there. But like Jen said, I also envisioned more basketball. We would pretend we were players on that team.”
When the girls were asked about Coach White, and how you can tell she is mad, they were all willing to chime in on their observations.
“There are two phases,” said Taylor. “Either she is screaming or she's completely silent.” The group was in agreement that silence is deadly.
“Being mad at a game is different than being mad at practice,” said Jackie. “You could tell she was mad at the Howells game, when you just sat straight up. In practice when you are mad, you'll just stand there with your arms crossed or you will say something with your hands.”
White said that when she calls a timeout in a game, the girls understand why they are getting together. “The girls know I will never get mad if they are playing to their potential. It's when they are not mentally prepared to play. A lot of the time I don't say much if anything at all, the girls discuss things amongst themselves.”
“She will tell us to relax and sometimes not much is even said,” Taylor added.
“If a timeout is called by our side, we already know what it is we need to work on,” Jackie said.
Prior to the interview, Coach White was given an assignment, to find one word that described each of her senior players as an athlete, person and another word to describe them as a team.
“This was a good assignment for me, and I really gave it a lot of thought,” White said. “For Taylor as a person I chose happy and for Megan I chose focused. For Jackie I couldn't come up with a word and you would be interested to know, when I asked the students, they think that Jackie is scary. But my word for Jackie as a person is driven and intense. For Malinda my word is spirited. I think Malinda could have been a cheerleader, she is very positive. For Jen my word is smart and maybe a little shy. As athletes, for Taylor the word is unselfish, for Jackie it is fierce competitor. When Jackie decides she is going to play, she does. For Jen it's the same word I chose before, smart, very smart athlete, plays to her strengths. Megan is a leader and Malinda as an athlete is just fun, she's out there for the fun.
And as a team, I just label them unbeatable.
Some of the girls offered some advice for players who aspire to have the success they did.
“Don't take any moments for granted,” Jackie said. “People who have already graduated and have missed their chance have come up to me and said that's amazing.”
“Don't expect it to be given to you,” Megan added. “You have to work to get there.”
“When a coach tells a player something, they do that because they see potential, not because they are putting them down,” said Jennifer. “Sometimes young kids think they are bad when a coach corrects them and they give up.”
“The younger generation has to realize that they have to work for it,” said White. “And if they didn't work for it, they can't make excuses. I don't think these girls know any different. They are not conceited in any way, they just don't know any other way and that is just how it is.
If I am here another 20 years, which I probably will be, I want the kids to come up to me and say I want to be just like (these) girls.”
“We weren't all standouts, but together we did really well,” Taylor said. “That proves that once you have teamwork you can build a program. It was teamwork that got us this far.”
“In the beginning we were content with winning because we didn't know anything different,” Megan added. “We wanted to win obviously and we had to step up our game to win. We went through some rough patches. We definitely can motivate ourselves and everybody can turn the switch on at anytime.”
“By ourselves we were average, but together we were great,” said Jennifer.
“The one word that I came up to describe them as a team was unbeatable,” White repeated. “These girls have put in the time to reach the success they have achieved.”
In closing, I just want to say to the teacher at Thayer Central High School: The girls are genuinely sorry for what they did to your sign-out sheet during the district volleyball tournament.
To find out more watch the video at yorknnewstimes.com.